Best (and Worst) Reads of 1999

by Christopher DeFilippis

DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 13
(First Appeared: February, 2000; First Light E-zine, Issue #89)

Welcome to the second edition of my now annual February column chronicling the best and worst books I’ve picked up over the last year. Though I’ve retained the same categories I set down in the “Best of ’98” column, I find myself at a loss to find titles to fill them all. I assure you this has less to do with a deficiency in the format than it does with a degradation in my reading habits.

Hey! Cut me some slack. I’d like to see how well you do when free cable is a fringe benefit of your job. I didn’t think my viewing habits had changed all that much, but here’s the proof staring me in the face.

Nonetheless, I think I’m making up for it with a vengeance. In the last month I think I’ve purchased about 20 books. I’m bingeing like a bulimic and there’s no end in sight. Compulsion can be a wonderful thing sometimes. On with the list.

Best Media Tie-In

None

Alternate Pick: Star Trek: Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Okay. This one really isn’t attributable to television overload (which is kind of ironic when you consider the genre). The truth of the matter is that I’ve strayed away from tie-in novels over the last few years. The way I figure, there are a lot of books out there that I want to read. Do I really need to spend my time on yet another generic Star Trek/X-Files/Put-Your-Favorite-TV-Show-Here adventure?

That’s not to say that I’ve ditched tie-ins completely, nor am I downing the ones that are done well. I owe a lot to the genre, after all. But I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend any of the novels I picked up in 1999 (as you’ll see in an upcoming category).

Instead, I’ll push one I read a few years ago called Star Trek: Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, an excellent TOS/NextGen crossover.

Best Science Fiction Novel

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.

I first heard of Bester at last year’s I-Con Science Fiction convention during a panel entitled “Must Read SF.” Well, the panel didn’t lie. If you haven’t discovered Bester for yourself, drop whatever you’re doing, run out, and buy this book right now.

Straight from the era when SF was great, The Stars My Destination follows main character Gulliver Foyle, a 25th Century anti-hero on his single-minded mission of revenge to the people who wronged him. This story has a lot in common with Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (which, oddly enough, is the book I finished right before starting this one).

But while they’re similar in structure, Stars shines as a brilliant work in its own right. Rather than traipsing around 18th Century France, Gully exists in a future where humans “jaunte” from one place to another by sheer will-power. A stupid, illiterate thug, Gully is one of the few people who hasn’t developed the skill. But after being left for dead in the shattered hulk of a derelict spaceship, the spark of vengeance starts a fire in his dormant mind and awakens powers that make him the most advanced—and deadly—man alive.

Best Fantasy Novel

None

Alternate Pick: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

What a horrible category to come up short in! But again, nothing I read in 1999 is worthy of a recommendation.

If you’re looking for fantasy you can sink your teeth into, try Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. True, the story has stalled a bit in the last two volumes, but there’s no denying that Jordan has laid down the new standard against which today’s fantasy should be measured. It’s rich, complex, sweeping stuff, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since The Lord of the Rings. Volume one is called The Eye of the World. Give it a shot and see what I mean.

Best Novel, General Fiction

This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann.

This is one of the very few bestsellers I’ve ever picked up that wasn’t a hopeless pile of crap. It’s nice to know that the hot list occasionally has room for books that rise far above the Grisham/Steele lowest common denominator drivel or titles not pushed by Oprah’s man-repellent book club.

1916: Nathan Walker is a sand hog—an underground digger hollowing out the tunnels that will eventually become the New York City subway system. 1991: Nathan’s grandson Treefrog is a homeless man living in the same tunnels. The book weaves a tapestry of the intervening 70 years, which details the story of three generations of Walkers and is colored by the spectrum of the human condition. It’s a seriously good book.

Best Non-Fiction Book, Contemporary

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

So, you say you want to chuck it all, hit the open road and get by on nothing but your wits and nature’s bounty? This book will cure you, and quick.

In 1992, college student Chris McCandless took the fabled road less traveled. He gave away all his stuff, hoofed around the country for a while and eventually hiked into the Alaskan wilderness. A moose hunter found his rotting corpse four months later.

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of doing the same thing as McCandless? I know I have, and this book appealed to that sense of yearning within me. But it shows how adventure can quickly become a nightmare for those unprepared—or, in McCandless’ case, unwilling—to temper their loftier ideals with a dose of reality.

Krakauer does a wonderful job of reconstructing McCandless with the scanty material he has to work with and presents us with a compelling and disturbing sketch of a young man who was too idealistic—and stubborn—for his own good.

Best Non-Fiction Book, Historical

South by Ernest Shackleton

Once again appealing to my sense of adventure, South is the tale of one ship’s quest to reach the pole (guess which one) as told by her captain. Sailing aboard the Endurance, explorer Earnest Shackleton had planned to dock in Antarctica and travel overland to his destination. Mother Nature had different plans.

Trapped between ice floes, the ship was eventually crushed, stranding the crew on the frozen seas. With no alternative, Shackleton and two other crew members took the largest remaining row boat and rowed—rowed!—hundreds of miles across the storm-wracked winter ocean to the nearest island to get help. That’s the short version. The long version will leave you with your jaw hanging open in disbelief.

Alas, my copy of this book suffered much the same fate as the Endurance. Like most men, I get a lot of reading done in the bathroom. Well, upon completing my business one day, I reached to retrieve the book and fumbled it off my fingers. Time stopped, and for a split second I saw the book suspended gracefully in mid-air. Then gravity took over and South went south into its watery grave. I’ll spare you the grizzly details. Suffice it to say that for the first time in my life I threw a book away, and had no compunctions about doing so.

Best Biography

None

In recent years my goal has been to think of people I admire and to read their biography to see where they get their inspiration. This year I chose Ludwig van Beethoven, mainly because I stand in awe of his music.

After some research I decided on the biography written by Maynard Solomon, considered to be the most authoritative one to date. It was a mistake.

Solomon’s book was chock full of information all right—too much of it. As near as I can figure, this Beethoven biography is geared for Beethoven scholars who just happen to be classical musicians as well. I say this because Solomon addresses the reader as if they are already intimately familiar with the great composer’s life and his entire musical cannon. It wasn’t suited for a novice such as myself, I’m afraid.

Well, at least the book looks good on my shelf. I hope one day to be sufficiently versed in the knowledge I need to fully enjoy it.

Biggest Disappointment (TIE)

Star Trek: My Brother’s Keeper series by Michael Jan Friedman
Star Trek: The Captain’s Table (Book Six): Where Sea Meets Sky by Jerry Oltion

I had high hopes for all of these books because they deal with very early points in Trek history, which I’ve always found intriguing.

My Brother’s Keeper was a three book package that dealt with Kirk’s early career and his friendship with Gary Mitchell. In theory, it’s supposed to show how the relationship helped mold Kirk into the captain we know and love.

But the idea fell flat in execution. What we got were mediocre stories and characterization that did little to foster a feeling of camaraderie between Kirk and Mitchell, much less breathe life into that relationship that was cut so tragically short in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The books read like Friedman cranked them out in his spare time to make some extra cash. I never even bothered wasting my money on the third one in the series.

It was much the same for Oltion’s book, Where Sea Meets Sky. This was the Christopher Pike book in The Captain’s Table series—yet another attempt by Pocket Books to create a story arc that spans across the various Trek franchises and make you plunk down money on books you wouldn’t otherwise buy. Nonetheless, when I saw Pike on the cover, I had to have it. Again, early Trek history was calling me.

And again, the story was a mediocre flop that failed to capture the feeling of the Enterprise we saw in The Cage. By some of the mistakes—such as red shirts denoting ops rather than the beige ones that were in use even in Kirk’s earliest missions—you’d think the author never even saw the pilot episode.

If you want early Trek history that won’t disappoint, look to the early days of the Pocket Book series, before it put on so many airs. The first three “giant” novels—they didn’t do hardcovers back then—are a sure bet:

Enterprise: The First Adventure by Vonda N. McIntyre;
Final Frontier by Diane Carey;
Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonanno.

These were written before the NextGen universe was even conceived, when original Trek was king and canon meant something. They are among the first, and still the best, Trek books I’ve ever read.

Worst Read of the Year

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is supposedly Japan’s most highly regarded novelist. All I can say is that something must be lost in the translation. If someone recommends this book to you, urge them to seek help immediately. The plot doesn’t even bear summarizing. Just take my advice and steer clear of this turkey.

So there you have it, the books that ushered me into the new millennium. In literary terms, 1999 won’t go down as a stellar year. But if I had to choose the best of the best, The Stars My Destination wins, hands down. I’ve since gotten my hands on two more of Bester’s books, made easier by the fact that Random House has gotten smart and packaged them as attractive trade paperbacks, much like they did with Philip K. Dick’s books. You should have no trouble finding them.

What does 2000 hold in store? A lot, so far as I can tell. I recently finished one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, my bookshelves are literally crammed with “to read” piles that are growing faster than I can get to them, and there seems to be no end to the boom in sight.

In other words, this is as good it gets. I can hardly wait to fill in the blanks for next year’s list.

As always, if you read a book based on my recommendation, please let me know what you think. And if you have a suggestion of your own, fire away. There’s always room on the shelf for one more, after all…

Best Reads Redux—Best of the Best

1998: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
1999: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

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